By Brooks Cochran
Due to recent events in the Middle East much interest is being directed toward that area of the world. “Across much of Asia and Africa, religious tensions are sweeping the world of Islam into deepening turbulence and political instability.”(1) Directly or indirectly some 900 million Moslems are involved.
However, the main attention of this country is directed toward Iran. “Americans have trouble comprehending an important fact about Iran’s revolution: The Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers believe absolutely that the Moslem faith is infallible and that their branch of Islam is superior to all others. Most Iranians belong to the Shiite sect of Islam, which split from the orthodox Sunni Moslems centuries ago in a dispute over who was to assume the power of the Prophet Mohammed. They are taught that the supreme Shiite religious leader – in this case Khomeini – has a God-given right to pass judgment on all political decisions.”(2)
Since the Islamic religion is receiving much attention in the world press it would be good for us to engage in a study of its origin and doctrines. Attention will also be given to compare certain teachings of Mohammed with that of the Bible.
“Islam” is the formal name of the religion that Mohammed established in 622 A.D. The basic meaning of the word is “submission to God.” A member of this faith is called a “Moslem.” The central belief of Islam is: “There is no God but God (Allah), and Mohammed is his prophet (apostle).”(3) The Koran is the “holy book of Islam.” The word “Koran” means “recital.” It is a collection of the teaching of Mohammed.(4)
There are four chief obligations which a Moslem must meet. He must: (a) pray at certain fixed times of the day facing Mecca, the Holy City of Islam; (b) if possible, make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his lifetime; (c) give alms to the poor; and (d) fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan the ninth month of the Moslem year. This month is considered sacred because Moslems believe that it was during this month that Mohammed had his vision of the archangel Gabriel.(5)
Islam has no religious images because Mohammed would not allow his followers to make representations of human and/or animal forms. The worship to Allah is without any elaborate ceremonies and there is no formal priesthood in the Islamic religion. There are, however, men called “mullahs” who are learned in the Islamic faith and law.
The tribes of Arabia, at the time of Mohammed’s birth (ca. 570 A.D.), were idol worshipers. They worshiped sacred stones and trees. The city of Mecca was their chief center of worship. At Mecca was located the sacred building called the “Kaaba.”
The Kaaba, according to tradition, was supposed to have been built by angels in the shape of a tent and let down to earth from heaven. It was here that Adam is said to have worshiped after his expulsion from paradise. Seth, it is said, substituted a structure of clay and stone in place of the tent. After the flood, Abraham and Ishamel reconstructed it. To this day Arabs believe that the footprints of Abraham and Ishamel can still be seen near the Kaaba. The present structure was entirely rebuilt in 1627. In November 1979 this structure was taken over by radical Moslems which in turn caused much unrest in many Moslem countries.
“Though Polytheism was the prevailing religion of Arabia, still there were in the land many followers of other beliefs.”(6) Many of the Jews, following the destruction of Jerusalem, were scattered throughout Arabia. Christians were also to be found. They, for the most part, “belonged to the various heretical sects which were expelled” from the Roman Church “during the violent doctrinal controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.”(7) (Note: In the use of the term “Christians” I do not mean to imply that these were New Testament Christians. By this time, Roman Catholicism had just about reached its maturity. Thus, I use the term to refer to those that did believe in God and Christ as opposed to those that did not.) From the Jews, the Arabs were made acquainted with the “doctrine of the one sole God. From the numerous Christian converts dwelling among them they” learned some of the doctrines of Christianity.(8)
At the time of the birth of Mohammed “there was much religious unrest in Arabia. There were here many seekers after God, men who, dissatisfied with the old idolatry, were ready to embrace a higher faith.”(9) “Arabia had at” this time, “all the elements for a wild, warlike, eclectic religion like the one which” Mohammed established.(10)
The Life of Mohammed
Mohammed was born in Mecca about 570 A.D. He was born into the Hashim family which was a member of the Kuraish tribe. It was this tribe that was the hereditary guardians of the Kaaba. His father, Abdallah, died before he was born. His mother, Amina, died when he was six. Upon her death, an uncle by the name of Abu Talib took him in and raised him.
During the early part of his life, he traveled with his uncle and others that were associated with the caravan business. It was while on these journeys as a camel driver and trader that he came in contact with various Jews and Christians. These contacts were the primary source of Mohammed’s information concerning the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity.
When he was twenty-five years of age, he married a rich widow, Chadijah, who was fifteen years his senior. She had previously hired him to carry on the mercantile business of her dead husband. Her father was opposed to this marriage; but she made and kept him drunk until the marriage ceremony was complete. There were six children (two sons and four daughters) born to Mohammed and Chadijah. All died except one daughter named Fatima. After Chadijah’s death Mohammed married a number of women. Some say that he had as many as twelve wives at one time.
At the age of forty, Mohammed claimed to have received a revelation from the angel Gabriel. Gabriel, he states, ordered him to preach to the Arabs so that they might be brought to religious purity. These so-called “revelations” came to him gradually over the rest of his life. He became convinced that God was revealing the truth to him, having singled him out to be his messenger.
At first, he preached only to members of his family. Then he went to the people of Mecca. A few Meccans accepted his message; but the vast majority rejected him and his teaching. In fact, the opposition was so strong, that fearing for his life, he took his followers and went to the town of Medina. This flight to Medina became known as the “Hegira” (“flight”). Since, in the mind of Moslems, this was such an important event in the life of Mohammed, it was used as the starting point for the Moslem calendar; i.e. the year 622 A.D. became the year I.
The years spent in Medina were years of conquest and expansion for Mohammed. Medina was the location of a large Jewish colony. To those Jews who refused to accept him and his teaching it was either death, slavery or pay tribute to Allah. The choice was theirs. Philip Schaff states that “on one occasion he ordered and watched in person and massacre of 600 Jews in one day, while their wives and children were sold into slavery.”(11)
In about 630, Mohammed was able to return to Mecca and take the city with little or no force. Upon entering the city he went to the Kaaba and destroyed all the idols contained therein with the exception of a black stone which Moslems today still revere. He then dedicated the Kaaba to Allah.
Mohammed died in 632 A.D. At the time of his death almost all Arabia had accepted his teaching. In less than twenty years after his death, his religion had spread to Syria, Egypt, Lybia and most of the old Persian Empire. By the beginning of the 8th century it had spread along the shore of North Africa to the Atlantic. Between 711 and 1492 Islamic forces had control of Spain.
Mohammed “regarded his revelation as the confirmation of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, as a religion designed for all men, the perfection of both Judaism and Christianity, the final revelation and synthesis of God’s truth.”(12) “Initially,” he “assumed that Jews and Christians would recognize his preaching as the last and most perfect revelation of God’s will. For Allah, Mohammed believed was the same deity who had spoken to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and all the other Hebrew prophets. Since Allah could not contradict himself, differences between Mohammed’s own revelation and the tenets of the older religions were explained simply as the result of human error or corruption of the authentic divine message.”(13) “By a combination of wise policies, toleration and force he converted many of the Bedouin tribes to his new religion.”(14)
The Islamic Standard of Authority
While Moslems believe that Allah revealed his will to Mohammed, and he in turn revealed it to man, they distinguish this revelation as being in two parts. One part consists of the sayings spoken by Gabriel directly to Mohammed. The other contains the sayings of Mohammed which give the sense of inspired instruction. These revelations are contained in two of the sources the Moslems go to for their authority; the Koran and the Sunna. In addition, to these two, Moslems also look to the Ulema.
The Koran is a collection of Mohammed’s teachings. These sayings and teachings were collected about a year after his death by his father-in-law, Abu-Bakr, and his immediate successor, Zoyd. The sayings had been written down on leather, parchment, bones, palm leaves, stones and boards. At the time of this collection the sayings and teachings were arranged without any chronological order or continuity of subject matter. Some years later the Koran went through a revision. Moslems believe the Koran to have been written from all eternity on tablets in heaven. From time to time, the contents of these tablets were revealed to Mohammed. He would then recite to his followers the revelation he received.
The Sunna consists of a great body of traditions of Mohammed’s sayings which are not part of the Koran; i.e. his actions, practices and decisions which have been handed down by his immediate companions. The first collection of these sayings was made some 100-200 years after the death of Mohammed. These traditions are regarded by the orthodox Moslems as being almost as sacred and authoritative as the Koran.
The Ulema was a body of pious men who met together to work out problems on which the Koran and Sunna could offer no direct guidance. In confronting a problem, they first went to the lore of Islam which contained reports about Mohammed’s uninspired words and deeds. This information was usually obtained from close companions of Mohammed. If this failed to provide a satisfactory solution to the problem, the Ulema considered the conduct of men closely associated with Mohammed; i. e., how would his close friends act in this situation. When these traditions failed to give a convincing answer, the Ulema turned to the use of analogy to decide upon a course of action; i.e. study a parallel or similar situation and see what was done in that case. If this failed, they fell back upon majority feeling, arguing that Allah would not allow the entire community to err, however faulty individual judgments might be. By using this system, these men of Islam rapidly built up an elaborate system of law, which they believed expressed the will of Allah.
The Sunni-Shiite Split
Moslems, following the death of Mohammed, disagreed over his successor. Eventually, Abu Bekr, his oldest companion and father-in-law, was chosen as “Caliph” (the representative of Mohammed). The next two Caliphs were also chosen from outside Mohammed’s family to the dismay of many Moslems. When the third Caliph was murdered (656 A.D.), those who favored choosing only a member of Mohammed’s family had formed themselves around Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali. This group became known as the Shiites (sectarians). Those that opposed the Shiites and favored the election of any eligible person to the Caliphate were known as Sunnites. (traditionalists).
Ali was chosen Caliph, and as a result civil war broke out. Ali was murdered in 661. “His opponent Muawiya, of the Umayyad family, leader of Sunnites, had already proclaimed himself Caliph in Damascus. Thus began the Umayyad caliphate (660-750), which was on the whole a period of good government, brisk trade, and cultural advance under Byzantine influence. Shiite opposition to the Umayyads, however, remained strong. The Shiites felt it their duty to curse the first three caliphs, who ruled before their hero, Ali, and who were deeply revered by the Sunnites. The Shiites were far more intolerant of the unbeliever, conspired in secret against the government,and were given to self-pity and to wild outbursts of grief for Ali’s son Husein, who was killed in 680. Southern Iraq was then the center of Shiite strength.”(15)
“The Shiites believed in a continuing revelation expressed by new prophets who claimed to be descendants of Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.”(16) The Ayatollah Khomeini is one of several Ayatollahs that belong to this sect. This is why “the Ayatollah views the world in black and white. One is either for him or against him. There is no middle ground. Believing that he is divinely inspired, Khomeini is certain he knows God’s will and sees no reason to negotiate or compromise. When things do not go as he expects, he blames a satanic plot.”(17)Most “of the Islamic world is Sunni Moslem and is embarrassed by Khomeini’s excesses in the name of Allah . . . Arab nations feel threatened by Iran’s Shiite fanaticism.”(18)
Truth Magazine XXIV: 6, pp. 104-106
February 7, 1980